The lost World of Joseph Pulitzer.

Media criticism.
Sept. 16 2005 2:55 PM

The Lost World of Joseph Pulitzer

A century ago, newspapers were bigger, bolder, and more beautiful. What happened?

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Who says the blind can't see?

As the 19th century began to fade, so, too, did the eyesight of newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. Yet his New York World became ever more visual, reaching its ophthalmic zenith in the Sunday editions published around the turn of the century.

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Despite the historical importance of the World and other old newspapers, libraries across the globe have been ditching the bound volumes in their collections to save space. Sometimes libraries simply trash the sets; sometimes they auction them to cannibals who razor out specific pages or advertisements and resell them.

In the late 1990s, novelist turned paper worshipper Nicholson Baker learned that the British Library was jettisoning its New York World collection from the turn of the 19th century. Pronouncing an original set of the World "a good deal rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio or the Gutenberg Bible," Nicholson and his wife, Margaret Brentano, rescued the set. They eventually found the World a proper home at Duke University, but before surrendering custody they photographed select pages and have now persuaded the Bulfinch Press to publish the glory that is The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911).

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Having conquered St. Louis, in 1883, budding press magnate Joseph Pulitzer purchased the money-losing, 15,000-circulation World from financier Jay Gould. Pulitzer fused political muckraking with pure sensationalism to make the paper the hugely successful voice of the city's Democratic working class. By 1898, 1.5 million copies reached readers daily.

Rewriting the rules of New York City journalism, he was as likely to run an exposé of tenement life as he was a story (illustrated, of course) headlined "French Scientist and Explorer Discovers a Race of Savages with Well-Developed Tails." The World established the first separate sports department at a New York daily, writes biographer Denis Brian in Pulitzer: A Life, and forged another path by aggressively hiring female journalists. One of his most famous recruits was investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who once checked herself into an insane asylum to reveal its stark living conditions.

But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer's people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers.

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Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages. See, for example, the treatment given to a cover story about New York skyscrapers in the World's Jan. 20, 1907, Sunday magazine, which beckons the reader to enter its universe. Today's newspaper designers construct layouts so they can be comprehended in a flash. But the World's designers invited the eye to explore, to soak up detail, to appreciate subtlety, to partner with the brain in forming a lasting mental image. The skyscraper layout resembles an Advent calendar, saying "open me" in countless spaces.

The heavy reliance on illustrations makes the World look old-timey, but, once you accept the conventions of the period, the pictures take on a three-dimensional quality that rivals the finest modern photography and reproduction. There's something fantastically real to me about this Aug. 13, 1911, World magazine cover illustration of man-meets-beast in "The Submarine's Encounter—Whales!" (This whale page and others cited in this piece were originally posted at Baker's American Newspaper Repository Web site.)

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A designer assigned to such an oceanic story today would probably scatter the collected images—whale, submarine, surface ship, dolphin, shipwreck, shark, splashing surf, seaweed, and chase ship—over a couple of pages. But, like many World layouts that Baker and Brentano salvaged, the submarine's pas de deux with the whale tells a complete graphic story on one page; its images stimulate the reader's appetite for text.